Chris Nelder on Energy Transitions

The transition from fossil fuels to a cleaner energy future is perhaps the most important human adaptation of our lifetime. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Chris Nelder about his mission to take a deep dive into energy, on a fortnightly basis, as the host of the Energy Transition Show podcast. We discuss his travels as a digital nomad, look at some of the energy stories he’s been covering, and get into a larger conversation about what needs to happen to see this transition through.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Chris Nelder (CN) | 00:15 – The more I’ve studied this stuff, the more it has become clear to me that there’s no technical or economic reason why we shouldn’t do the energy transition or why it can’t work. We have the technology, it’s very affordable. In most cases, it’s far cheaper than remaining on the existing fossil fuel systems that we use. It’s cheaper than nuclear for sure. So there’s really no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t do it, except for politics.

Narrator | 00:45 – The transition from fossil fuels to a cleaner energy future is perhaps the most important human adaptation of our lifetime. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Chris Nelder about his mission to take a deep dive into energy, on a fortnightly basis, as the host of the Energy Transition Show podcast. We discuss his travels as a digital nomad, look at some of the energy stories he’s been covering, and get into a larger conversation about what needs to happen to see this transition through.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:35 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Chris Nelder. Chris is the host of the Energy Transition Show podcast. Chris, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Chris Nelder (CN) | 01:44 – Thanks very much.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:45 – So, tell us about the Energy Transition Show. I’d like to know more about how you got into it and what problems you’re trying to solve through it.

Chris Nelder (CN) | 01:56 – Well, my partner, Justin Richie, pitched me on doing this show and, we’ve been doing the show for about eight and a half years now. And the whole concept of it really was to create the kind of energy podcast that I wanted to listen to because I was really disappointed with what I felt like was just sort of shallow, poorly structured, poorly researched content that was available in, in a lot of the other podcasts. And I’m a geek, I’m a serious energy geek, and I’ve been studying energy intensely full-time for the better part of 20 years. And so I wanted to make a show that was for people like me that really want to geek out on, the details and really understand sort of the complex, thorny issues involved in the energy transition. And, and there’s a lot of them. Policy is complex. The technologies are complex. The way that these changes that we’re experiencing through the energy transition affects the world, are very complex and so I want to do a show about all those things and with the intention of really motivating other people to participate in the energy transition however they can.

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:02 – When somebody who is not very familiar with the term energy transition asks you what your show is about and what, what does that mean energy transition, how do you define that to them?

CN | 03:13 – I mean, the simplest way of putting it, I think is, um, getting off of fossil fuels and, and moving over to, uh, renewables as a way of powering the world and all the, all the different purposes we have for energy. Of course, it’s more complex than that. There are various kinds of what people call clean energy solutions that aren’t necessarily based on renewables. But as time goes on in the energy transition progresses, it’s becoming more clear. I think that really what we’re talking about is a switch to renewables. Primarily it’s about eliminating carbon emissions. It’s about transforming our society in that way so that we can address the problem of climate change.

AW | 03:50 – And you have taken your show on the road recently. You’ve been a digital nomad, so to speak. Why don’t you explain where your travels have taken you and how you’ve been able to translate that into a different perspective for your listeners?

CN | 04:05 – Yeah. About two and a half years ago when I was still in Boulder, Colorado, I had just completed about five and a half years of working at the Rocky Mountain Institute, RMI. And,  I put all my stuff in storage and, uh, I haven’t seen it since <laugh>. I’ve been living out of suitcases since then, mostly in Airbnbs, in various, places. And, I just spent three months in the UK. I traveled all around Scotland for, uh, about a month and a half. And then spent several weeks in London and then several more weeks in Paris. And, all along the way I interviewed people that, um, about various things that are happening and turn those into podcast episodes. So, the first one I did, which I’m very happy I did, it had been on my list of things I wanted to do for, for years, really, was to visit this tiny little island called egg, um, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s got about a 115 people there now. And, um, starting about, uh, 25 years ago, they bought the island back from the absentee landlord who owned it, and they, uh, began a transformation of their island. Um, and, uh, about 10 years ago, um, I’m sorry, I think about 15 years ago, they started working on an energy transition of their own because it just really wasn’t possible for them to get mainland power, uh, brought over across the water. And, um, so they put up a, a solar array and some wind turbines and a couple of small hydro projects, and they actually laid their own transmission, uh, system and distribution, uh, lines across the island and connected everybody to it and made it possible for everyone to shut down their, uh, nasty little, uh, loud expensive polluting, uh, diesel generators, which they could only afford to run for a couple hours a day anyway, and switch over to the island’s own domestically produced grid power. And it’s just a fantastic story to me. It’s just one of those great examples where if 115 people living on a small island, um, you know, off the coast of the, uh, Scotland in the Atlantic, uh, can do their inner, can do an energy transition on their own, then really anyone can. So yeah, I did a story about that. And then I also did another story about offshore wind. Um, I visited a port in, on the north coast of Scotland on the North Sea, where they’re marshaling the foundations for a big new offshore wind farm. So I did a number of interviews, uh, related to that story and, and produced an episode on that. And then, um, I actually produced another show, uh, just recently based on one of my longtime listeners, actually, who is a passive house consultant in Scotland. And, uh, so we did a show about the techniques that, that he and his firm use to make houses, uh, more thermally efficient and reduce their heat losses, um, and the rainiest coldest part of Scotland. And now he is able to heat and cool his house all year long for about 200 pounds, which is just phenomenal. Um, and so, yeah. Um, and then when I was in Paris, I actually interviewed, um, the folks at the IAEA. I went to their offices. What’s that? The International Energy Agency. And so, um, yeah, it was a fantastic trip. 

AW | 07:34 – Looking at it from a bigger policy perspective, were you able to kind of glean which countries are making that energy transition in a way that’s in line with your philosophy versus others where they’re kind of lagging? For example, I was just in Italy over the summer, and yes, they’ve been innovators in the vehicular space since the advent of the automobile. And Italy has an amazing history with vehicle manufacturing. And then they also were pretty early to the game in many cars, but they are not really well prepared right now to transition over to electric vehicles in Italy. It, it was quite a contrast from, let’s say Norway. I found that pretty interesting. But as an American, have you had similar thoughts where you’ve gone over to a country and been like, wow, they used their hot water in a completely different way and in, in the showers, let’s say.

CN | 08:29 <laugh>? Yeah. Well, I mean, part of the reason I wanted to take my show on the road and become a full-time digital nomad, or as I prefer to call it a patic podcaster, um, is because every place has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities in the energy transition, right? Like every, every country has its own, uh, potential resources in the form of renewables. Every country has its own, uh, manufacturing, uh, base its own sort of political orientation, uh, around the energy technologies and, and industries that it hosts, uh, and so on. And, and so I, I think there’s a lot of, um, value in going around and seeing how different countries approach their own specific unique set of, uh, challenges and opportunities, um, and then hopefully, you know, glean some ideas from that, that, that other places can, can use. Um, to your point, one of the, one of the things I have observed is, um, you know, as the old saw goes, uh, where you stand depends on where you sit. And, Italy, because of its, uh, longstanding automotive industry, is, uh, politically and economically sort of wedded to that industry. Um, and it’s very difficult for an industry to reform itself, um, especially if that means, you know, giving up on, on the, on the cash cow that it’s had all along. Uh, it’s part of the reason why the United States is moving more slowly, um, in the energy transition than it could because we have such a weight of influence politically and economically from the oil and gas and, and coal industries. Um, you know, uh, and all you need to do is look at, the way that, President Trump was, was so closely aligned with the oil and gas and coal industries and doing everything he could to, uh, support them and to push down, uh, what they saw as a threat of renewables to see why the energy transition is moving more slowly than it could in the US.  Germany has the same problem as, as Italy, as far as the automotive industry and its influence goes. Um, whereas Norway, um, does not have a big automotive industry, right? And so, uh, it was a lot easier for them to, um, put in place the kinds of incentives that led to them being, um, one of the most rapid adopters of EVs, uh, in the world. So, you know, it really depends, um, what is the specific set of opportunities and, and resources that each place has, what is the influence of the different industries that are there? And all of that kind of adds up to, uh, the kind of progress that they can make and, and how quickly they can make it.

(Music Break) | 11:22

AW | 12:12 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to the host of the Energy Transition Show, Chris Nelder. So Chris, as an environmentalist who’s been doing all this traveling, how have you been trying to reduce your carbon footprint? I know that’s a challenge. 

CN | 12:29 – Yeah, I mean, to me, the most important thing that I can do is to tell these stories, uh, to get out there and meet people and tell the stories, uh, and, and share that knowledge, uh, across the world. So that’s, that’s the first and most important priority. Um, I’m not going to let, uh, my own personal carbon footprint impede that as a priority, but, uh, to the extent that I can, of course I do try to minimize my, uh, emissions. Um, so, uh, for example, when I went to, uh, Costa Rica, uh, last year, I’m sorry, in, in 2022, um, basically, you know, my carbon footprint consisted of a flight there and a flight back, and that’s it. Like, I didn’t drive, I didn’t even really take, um, a taxi much at all, or, or, uh, rent a quad, which a lot of people do or anything like that. I was just sort of on foot. I feel like during the months I was in Costa Rica, I probably had the lowest carbon footprint I’ve ever had in my life. <laugh>, When I was traveling across the UK for the, uh, the last, uh, three months, um, you know, I, I used a, a car, uh, driving across Scotland because it’s really the only way to do it. Uh, there isn’t a reliable train service, uh, to most of the places that I went to, uh, or, um, very, you know, comprehensive bus service. It really would’ve been very, very difficult to plan the trip any other way. But then once I was in, uh, reach of, you know, good rail networks, um, I just used that. So, you know, uh, after driving all around Scotland, I, uh, dropped my car in Edinburgh. And for the, for the remaining six weeks, I was just on public transportation. I was on trains, which, uh, of course are brilliant all across Europe. And, um, that was basically, it trains and, and, uh, the underground in, in London and Paris. 

AW | 14:20 – And what are some of the takeaways that you have taken from this travel that you think would be relevant to environmentalists or listeners to the energy transition show? Where are the lessons to be learned? 

CN | 14:34 – As I travel around, I notice things that are different, of course, than they are back home. One of the things that, uh, as I was just mentioning was just the availability of trains and the underground. You know, in London and in Paris, uh, their, the metro system is just phenomenal. Uh, it gets you anywhere you need to go, uh, in either city, you know, usually pretty quickly, you know, in sort of a 15 to 30 minute sort of a timeframe, you can get kind of anywhere you need to go, at least as far as the central part of the city goes. And, it’s fantastic and not only that, you get in a, a lot of walking, uh, when you’re, when you’re traveling around the city that way, because, uh, usually there’s, you know, a five or 10 minute walk from one uh, tube station to your destination or, or whatever and so I was getting in a lot more walking, um, which was amazing. I loved the exercise and just the fact that it was just sort of, you know, casual exercise, right? It’s, it wasn’t like I was going to the gym, it was just sort of, you know, 15 to minutes to half an hour or sometimes an hour or more of just walking a day. It was just sort of there. It was great for my health. It was great for my fitness. I lost some weight. I really enjoyed that, that casual ability to get around on foot, um, and on the, on the, on the underground. And I really wish that that existed in the us. Um, you know, it does in New York City, obviously, um, and, uh, to a lesser extent. And, like San Francisco, Chicago, some of the bigger cities, Boston. But, I really think the US needs to do a lot of work, uh, to get to the kind of, uh, routine availability of rail service, light rail, and also, you know, sort of like longer distance rail, in the US. I think that’s really got to be a major priority for us. And, and once you go to another country and you live there for a while where they have that kind of service, you realize how brilliant and utterly superior it is in every way to the way that we get around in the us. Um, and then as far as, um, you know, building standards go is something else that really, uh, came through to me. Um, Europe is full of old buildings that leak heat like crazy, and it’s a wildly inefficient, um, built environment, uh, and they have a lot of work to do on that, of course we do in the US as as well. But we don’t have buildings that are hundreds of years old, <laugh> in the US for the most part, and, um, and made of stone and very difficult to retrofit, um, which they do have all across Europe. So that’s, um, another one of those contrasts that kind of popped out at me, which is what led me to my interest in, in the passive he techniques that, um, I did in the aforementioned interview with my, uh, consultant friend in, in Scotland. Um, so these are all things that, um, you know, start to come out at you as you as you travel around. Um, in Costa Rica, for example, um, I learned that, you know, what they, uh, the reason they have that reputation for being such an ecologically friendly, um, country, uh, is because basically they’re blessed by geography. Um, it’s not really because of their policy, um, or their leadership. They have got a lot of rain, so they have a lot of hydro. Um, and of course they have, uh, a very substantial solar resource. Um, and also, uh, increasingly a lot of wind. Um, but it’s because of the accident of geography and topology, uh, that they’re able to be a 100% renewably powered country almost. They do rely on quite a bit of natural gas to fill in power generation when they go into the dry season for a few months. And, and, um, their hydro stops, uh, pumping out electricity because as actually, as it turns out, their hydro reservoirs are really quite shallow and they don’t have a lot of storage. Um, so when the dry season comes along, they kind of, you know, start to taper off in their electricity production. Um, so you start to see these, these kinds of differences and, and the ways that different countries are able to exploit things and how those ideas might be transferable to other places.

(Music Break) | 18:41

AW | 19:40 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to the host of the Energy Transition Show, Chris Nelder. So Chris, let’s turn back to energy transitions. On the whole, looking at it globally, what gives you optimism and where are you continually looking at things with a little more of a glass half empty lens? 

CN | 20:04 – <laugh>? Yeah. Well, the first point I want to make there is that the more I’ve studied this stuff, the more it has to become clear to me that there’s no technical or economic reason why we shouldn’t do the energy transition or why it can’t work. We have the technology, it’s very affordable in most cases. It’s far cheaper than remaining on the existing fossil fueled systems that we use. It’s cheaper than nuclear for sure. So there’s really no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t do it, except for politics. Basically, all of the reasons why the energy transition is moving slowly, where it’s moving slowly. All of the reasons why we run into resistance or difficulty are not technical, and they’re not economic, and they’re not about technology, it’s about politics. It’s about who stands to win and who stands to lose from the energy transition. And that’s just period. That’s just it. It’s the bottom line. It’s about money. It’s about who stands to win and who stands to lose. And I think that that is something that a lot of people are uncomfortable to say. It’s a politically charged thing to say that, obviously, right? And I think a lot of people would like to avoid that and just emphasize the economics, but it’s not a technological problem, and it’s not an economics problem. It’s a political problem. Um, so the things that excite me, um, are the things that, you know, are the opportunities where we can get the politics out of the way and just let the technologies, um, exploit the opportunity that’s, that’s available to them on a, on a purely economic basis, and watch it run. It’s, it’s wonderful. Um, for example, offshore wind in the North Sea is just a phenomenal story, and it’s, it’s growing so quickly and it’s so incredibly powerful, and ultimately it’s going to be so stupid cheap. It’s just really exciting to see it happen. And then, you know, what are the things, uh, that get me, um, a little more despondent or starting to look at things from a gas half empty, uh, standpoint? It’s where you see, uh, you know, the influences of the oil and gas industry primarily doing everything they can to corrupt the public dialogue, to confuse the public and confuse policy makers and put out rubbish research or just outright lies, uh, just straight misinformation. So when I talked to, to the researchers at Oxford University, I said, look, your research doesn’t matter unless you can find a way to make it policy relevant, to get it in front of the actual people who make the decisions, and to understand why they make the decisions the way they do. If you imagine that they’re just eagerly waiting your next policy paper or your latest insights of your brilliant research to help them decide, um, you know, what moves to make politically with their own energy transition, uh, opportunities, you should think again because that’s not how the world works. You know, we, we need to think about things like when for, well, you brought up the point of EVs earlier. As more and more people buy EVs, there will come a point where it’s very difficult to actually make a viable business out of still running a gas station, right? What is that point? Is it when 50% of the drivers on the road are EV drivers and no longer go to gas stations? Is it 40%? Is it 60? And when we get to that point, how do we make sure that there’s still a gas station available for the people who don’t yet have an EV? How do we make sure that we don’t leave them just high and dry? And actually, there’s a whole series of problems like that.

AW | 23:37 – And on the flip side, we’re seeing that, like I mentioned in Italy, where somebody might come into the country with their electric vehicle and not really find adequate charging stations. That seems to be the big infrastructure failure right now with the transition to EVs in Italy. According to a friend of mine who lives there, he says they just don’t have a lot of charging stations available. 

CN | 23:58 – No, that’s right. But that’s actually a different set of problems. That’s, that’s the problem of how does this new technology of the energy transition get deployed and take market share. Um, and there’s a, a chicken and egg problem there, right? Where people have to buy EVs and buy, get the charging infrastructure going at the same time.

AW | 24:17 – Yeah, I guess I saw the commonality through the market because you’re talking about like gas stations at some point just discover that it’s not worth their time to stay open to cater to a limited audience. And at some point it’s going to make a lot more sense to, to cater to these electric vehicle owners. Right? Now, some countries have not really gotten on board, or some states here in the US you see adoption rates at such a, a, a wide variance. 

CN | 24:43 – Yeah, that’s right. There’s a whole class of problems for the new technologies that are trying to gain market share. And then there’s a whole ‘nother set of problems for the technologies that have to give up market share and get phased out. And there, there are different problems, right? I mean, the, the problems that face the technologies that are getting phased out, a lot of them are going to ultimately boil down to problems of fairness, problems of equity, right? The, the first parts of the country to really have adequate, robust EV charging infrastructure, especially public EV charging infrastructure for people that can’t plug in at home are going to be the wealthy parts of the us. And we’ve got lots of data to show that that’s the case. So the people that are going to be probably the last to adopt an EV, the people that are going to need access to a gas station still after everybody else has an EV are the disadvantaged communities, right? And so how do we avoid leaving them stranded without a place to refuel their car because they can’t afford to buy an EV As that set of technologies gets phased out, I’ll give you another example of these kind of mid transition problems. Um, as more and more of our energy system goes to renewables, uh, especially with grid power, we’re going to have less and less need for natural gas networks, right? And so at some point, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain the existing transmission and distribution pipelines for the natural gas system, and nobody’s going to want to pay for it after a lot of the population isn’t using it anymore. But those who still need it, those who don’t have solar, who haven’t got a fully electric house, who maybe aren’t quite at a place where they can replace all their own appliances, right, are going to still need access to that network even as it becomes less and less economic to run it. And there’s a whole ‘nother set of downstream problems that evolve from that, right? Like, how do we make sure that when we get to 2050 and we’ve gotta be at net zero and the oil and gas industry has to shrink to a, a tiny fraction of its existing size, that there’s still enough people who actually know that business that can operate refineries, that can keep the flow of fuels that some people still need going, even after generations of young people have already decided, yeah, I’m not going into the fossil fuel business, it’s a dead end, right? I wanna be on the winning side of the energy transition. So we’ve got a whole series of very complex, thorny problems that we have to start working our way through. They’re, they’re geopolitical problems, they’re equity problems, they’re political problems. They have to do with who stands to win and who stands to lose, who’s going to make money, who’s going to lose money. And, all of this stuff is going to take some very deliberate effort to work it out what the good solutions are. And we’re going to need very competent and thoughtful leaders who can work their way through that, that set of problems. And, um, it’s, it’s not going to be easy. But at the same time, I do think it’s inevitable. I really cannot make a strong argument for why we should not or could not, or will not continue to proceed with the energy transition until it’s finished. 

AW | 27:54 – He’s the host of the Energy Transition Show podcast, Chris Nelder. Chris, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

CN | 28:01 – You’re very welcome. Thank you, Alex. 

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Meters, George Harrison and Fog Swamp. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site – or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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